Elephant Micah is Joseph O’Connell, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter whose songs betray his day job as an Indiana folklorist. Take “Slow Time Vultures”, the 7-1/2-minute centerpiece of his Western Vinyl debut Where in Our Woods, which describes the time O’Connell’s childhood home in Pekin, Indiana, attracted a giant flock of vultures. The song anthropomorphizes the birds, who use the barn roof as a soapbox to lament Indiana’s conforming to Daylight Savings Time. (Prior to 2006, most of the state disregarded DST, and locals often referred to its singular zone as “slow time.”)
The vultures question and criticize fast-paced progress (“We can’t afford to go forward any more”), and O’Connell sanctifies their words in a sparse, patient arrangement. It takes about 20 seconds for him to sing the first six words—”Vultures on our old barn roof”—and he spends much of the song hypnotically plucking the low E of a nylon-stringed guitar that permeates the album, becoming its signature instrument. The effect is stark and haunting and entirely vulture friendly.
O’Connell has been experimenting with Midwestern Americana for 14 years now, but most of the 11 Elephant Micah releases prior to Where in Our Woods were primitively recorded and distributed on tiny labels or self-released on CD-Rs. Elephant Micah isn’t exactly a secret (you can find most of the releases for pay-what-you-want prices on Bandcamp), but O’Connell has remained on the margins more than friends like M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger (the two covered each other’s songs for a 7” release a few years ago). All that, plus the folklorist thing, has contributed to Elephant Micah’s outsider/not-of-this-time rep. You get the feeling O’Connell doesn’t get worked up about iTunes updates or the appropriate context for leggings.
If 2012’s Louder Than Thou refined the Elephant Micah sound, Where in Our Woods continues the distillation until, after stripping away all but guitar, voice, a pump organ, and some rumbling drums (courtesy of O’Connell’s brother Matthew), the minimalism becomes the album’s calling card (think Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s unadorned but crisply rendered Master and Everyone). The album isn’t so decorous that it doesn’t take chances, though. It’s a risk, in fact, to present O’Connell’s voice so nakedly, since it’s neither a showstopper nor terribly eccentric. He doesn’t whisper, doesn’t yell. It’s smooth, almost to a fault, but the clarity of his tenor fits the pace and spareness of these eight songs. And just when you start yearning for something more, the bonnie prince himself, Will Oldham—an obvious inspiration here—shows up to add some harmonies.
Often, folk singers are either storytellers or read-into-it-what-you-want poets, but some of this generation’s best (Oldham, Jason Molina) fall somewhere in the middle. Elephant Micah stands firmly in that middle ground, not shying away from small details nor lofty, ambiguous ideas. Without some background explanation, it would be impossible to know that “Demise of the Bible Birds” refers to an Indiana man who trained birds to perform Christian-themed tricks. Or that O’Connell ripped the three stories in the gorgeous “Albino Animals”—hunters killing an albino deer, athletes capsizing on a boat, and meth cooks avoiding prosecution for a trailer fire—from the headlines of his hometown newspaper. O’Connell, though, gives us all the details we need to ponder ignorance and the unknowability of life while falling under the spell of a bewitching, repeating guitar line that somehow communicates both the tragedy and mercy in the stories.
The songs on Where in Our Woods were all written in 2006 and 2007, and while the Elephant Micah albums of that period have an experimental, homespun charm to them, O’Connell was wise to set these songs aside until he found the right setting for them, even if that didn’t become clear for several years. As the slow time vultures sing, “Ours are the spoils and the things that we can find on our own time.” Maybe those birds are onto something.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/157ICj6